If you feel like this spring is the worst allergy season in a long time, you’re not alone — or you’re imagining it. Doctors across the country are reporting seeing more severe seasonal allergies this year and for much longer this year than in previous seasons.
“Across the country, pollen levels were much higher earlier this year,” Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health, told TODAY.com. For many, that pollen causes sneezing, congestion, coughing, runny nose, and itching — otherwise known as seasonal allergy symptoms.
The pollen count is now 20% higher than in 1991, NBC News Medical Contributor Dr. Natalie Azar TODAY in a segment that aired on Friday, May 19.
The United States has three pollen seasons at different times of the year — spring is tree pollen season, summer is grass pollen season and fall is ragweed pollen season, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “At the moment it’s both tree and grass pollen,” says Parikh.
In addition to being more severe, this year’s allergy season is also longer, TODAY.com previously reported.
“Usually we see people who are allergic to tree pollen start to have symptoms in mid-March… This year we started seeing patients much earlier,” Dr. Sradha Agarwal, an allergist-immunologist at Mount Sinai, told TODAY.com.
“In my practice, we saw people in February, a full month in advance,” says Parikh.
Why is this year’s allergy season so bad?
One reason is that the US has had a very mild winter with more precipitation, but climate change is also to blame, the experts say.
“The warmer planet and higher carbon dioxide levels means you have an optimal environment for plant growth and plants produce pollen,” says Dr. Neeta Ogden, an allergist and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
During the winter, freezing temperatures cause plants to go into a dormant state, says Ogden. The mild winter combined with higher temperatures due to climate change allowed the ground to thaw more quickly, the experts note, causing plants to begin blooming and releasing pollen earlier than usual.
“We started allergy season about 20 days early, (and we’re ending) about 10 days later … that adds a month to our suffering,” Azar said.
Another possible factor is fewer people wearing masks indoors and outdoors this year, Agarwal says. “Masks really protected people from pollen exposure,” she adds.
While this year’s allergy season is tough, there are still ways to ease symptoms. We asked allergists to share their top tips for getting through the rest of allergy season.
Don’t ignore or wait to treat the symptoms
It’s not too late to try to get your allergy symptoms under control. “A big thing about dealing with allergies on any level is not waiting, because they can get out of hand,” says Ogden.
Although summer is just around the corner, late-season allergies can still persist for several weeks. “We’ll probably see the grass pollen season last longer, into later June or summer,” says Ogden.
People can develop seasonal allergies at any time, Azar noted, and some may mistake new symptoms for the common cold.
Colds are infections caused by viruses or bacteria, Agarwal says, while allergies are the immune system overreacting to substances like pollen. They can cause similar symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, congestion, and coughing.
However, allergies cause more itching, Agarwal notes, and the same symptoms often last for weeks. Colds cause fever and pain, she adds, and symptoms usually improve over the course of a week.
Don’t take the wrong allergy medication
Drugstore aisles can be overwhelming. “(If) you’re experimenting with mixed-ingredient drugs, or you just don’t know how it works, (you) can make things worse,” says Ogden.
The experts recommend starting with second-generation 24-hour antihistamines as a first-line treatment. These include cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin), or fexofenadine (Allegra). Compared to first-generation antihistamines like diphenhydramine, these have fewer side effects and last longer, says Agarwal.
“You can start antihistamines at any time. Earlier is better, but they will still be effective now,” says Parikh.
Antihistamines block the action of histamine, which the body releases in response to allergens (such as pollen), resulting in a range of allergic reaction symptoms, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
The experts also recommend using over-the-counter nasal steroid sprays, which help reduce swelling and congestion in the nose. These are sold under brand names such as Flonase or Nasacort. Antihistamine eye drops may help relieve ocular symptoms, the experts add.
If none of these work, it may be time to see a doctor, says Ogden.
Don’t forget to take allergy medication daily
“One big mistake I see people making is not using daily antihistamines or nasal steroid sprays or allergy eye drops during allergy season,” says Parikh.
These allergy medications provide the most benefit when taken consistently, TODAY.com previously reported, versus when needed. “It’s much easier to control symptoms proactively than retroactively,” adds Parikh.
Another mistake Ogden often sees is people skipping or stopping medication just when they feel better, too early in the season.
“When you’re allergic, you really need that layer of protection before you go about your day, even if you don’t feel (that bad),” says Ogden, adding that people should continue to take medications until the end of the allergy season or when pollen levels are high.
You may also consider taking your antihistamine twice a day, depending on the severity of your symptoms, Azar said in a segment that aired May 23. Consult your doctor before doing this, as taking more of the medication may cause drug interactions.
You should also consult a doctor before giving these drugs to your children or if you take them during pregnancy.
Do not use too many nasal decongestant sprays
Nasal decongestants provide temporary relief for stuffy or stuffy noses by reducing fluid and swelling in the nasal passages, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Some medications combine an antihistamine and a decongestant (these end in “-D” like Claritin-D), says Parikh.
The real concern is with over-the-counter decongestant nasal sprays, which can contain oxymetazoline, phenylephrine, or pseudoephedrine. Parikh recommends avoiding them completely. “These can actually make your allergies worse over time because they have a rebound effect where congestion gets worse,” she adds.
Instead, opt for over-the-counter nasal steroid sprays, such as Flonase or Nasacort, Azar said. You can also talk to your doctor about a prescription antihistamine spray.
Do not use tap water for nasal irrigation
Nasal irrigation, when you flush your sinuses to relieve congestion and blockage, can be used at home to treat allergies. To do this, according to the Cleveland Clinic, you can use a neti pot or a rinse bottle and a sodium chloride mix.
You pour the solution into one nostril and it comes out the other. But it’s important to use the right kind of water, Azar stressed. She recommended getting distilled or sterile water from the drugstore or boiling tap water for three to five minutes and letting it cool.
Saline mist sprays can also keep the sinuses moist, but they’re less effective at flushing out the mucus buildup that causes congestion, Azar said.
Don’t forget your eyes
Seasonal allergies can affect the eyes and cause redness, itching, pain, burning, swelling, or discharge. It’s essential for allergy sufferers to protect their eyes from pollen when they go outside, the experts note, especially if they wear contact lenses.
“I put a strong emphasis on wearing sunglasses every time you go outside, because all that flying pollen sticks to the lens and is a constant source of annoyance to the eye,” says Agarwal.
People should use antihistamine eye drops before going outside, Agarwal notes, and about 30 minutes before putting in contact lenses. “For some patients who are very sensitive, a lot of them can’t wear their contacts in season,” she adds.
Do not leave doors and windows open
While it’s tempting to let the spring breeze pour in, allergy sufferers should exercise caution, the experts warn.
“Tree pollen is a fine powdery substance, so it’s very easy for the wind to carry it for miles,” says Agarwal. Keeping doors and windows closed can help keep pollen out of the house so it doesn’t stick to surfaces or fabrics and cause symptoms indoors.
If your home gets warm, the experts recommend turning on the air conditioner instead of opening the windows, especially if the pollen count is high. “HEPA air filters can also help reduce the amount of allergens circulating around the home,” says Agarwal.
Don’t let pollen get into your bed
In addition to keeping bedroom windows closed during allergy season, Agarwal recommends always putting on clean clothes, showering, and washing your hair before going to bed if you’ve been outside that day.
It is also important to keep sheets, pillowcases and duvet covers as pollen free as possible. Parikh recommends washing bedding in warm water once a week to help remove pollen and other allergens.
Pets who spend time outside probably need to stay out of bed and bedroom during allergy season, too, says Ogden. Even if your cat or dog doesn’t look dirty, their fur may be covered in pollen. “Let’s face it, not all of us rinse our dogs at night,” says Ogden.
“Little things to reduce the pollen load you’re exposed to are always really helpful…even if it’s annoying and it’s more work,” says Ogden.
Don’t forget to check the pollen count before going outside
The experts recommend tracking pollen counts during allergy season through sources such as the National Allergy Bureau, the Allergy & Asthma Network, or various weather apps.
Planning outdoor activities around the pollen count can really help limit pollen exposure and reduce symptoms. “Don’t go outside during peak pollen times… usually pollen counts are highest in the early morning, at dusk, and on hot windy days,” says Agarwal.
If you must spend time outside when pollen counts are high, Agarwal recommends taking extra precautions, such as wearing a mask, sunglasses, and a hat to keep pollen out of hair.
“I don’t think people should live in a bubble, but be responsible,” says Ogden.